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Why should any horse have muscle "issues"?

By: Galadriel Billington

10:04PM Apr 10, 2004

If you don't work your horse very hard, then you may not feel that your horse has any muscle issues. Conversely, if you have a very sound, fit horse, you may feel that you are already giving his muscles enough priority.

  • The pasture ornament
    Galadriel has volunteered her time at the Retirement Home for Horses, and found similar muscle patterns in almost all of the retired horses. All of them seem to use the same muscle groups on a daily basis.
    Even a "pasture ornament," a horse who is just standing around in pasture, will be using some muscles more than others. The neck muscles used to raise and lower the head for grazing, for example, will probably be much stronger than those used for,say, jumping, and may even carry tension. Does this offer cause for alarm? Of course not. What it does offer is an understanding of the horse's use of muscles. Even a horse who is not "working" is still using his body in various ways.

  • The horse with a past
    In some of the residents at the Retirement Home for Horses, Galadriel observed muscle tension patterns leftover from the work the horses had done before retirement. Even many years later, a horse may retain old muscle tension.
    A horse may have a relaxed life, light riding, and a caring owner who takes all precautions--and yet he may still have some muscle "issues." A horse who was formerly ridden clumsily, or who wore badly fitting tack (even if that is no longer the case) has probably retained some soreness and stiffness. An uncomfortable horse stiffens to try to resist the pain. If the horse spent enough time resisting under saddle, particularly tensing his back against a painful saddle, he will have developed lasting constriction in those muscles. I've seen horses who had been retired for years who still had back and jaw tension; once tightened, it takes effort to help those muscles regain some slack.

  • The hard-working horse
    A horse in training will be using his muscles more, developing more strength as he uses them more. Like people, horses can get cramped from too much work at once, or from holding one position for any length of time (think about the position of the horse's neck as he works "on the bit," for example). When riders come out of a workout stiff, tense, or cramped, we can usually figure out a stretch to relieve some of the stiffness; a horse may not be able to stretch himself, or may not find it easy to stretch the muscles that he uses heavily. He cannot even tell us when he is experiencing discomfort, except to "misbehave." A horse in turnout can walk out some of the residual stiffness, but a stall-kept horse will not even have that option.

    Horses can't soak in a hot bath, get a backrub from a spouse, or develop muscle stretches, as we do, to relieve the stiffness after a hard workout. If the horse remains stiff when he begins his next workout, he can accumulate tension in the muscles. It probably won't make him obviously sore, and he won't feel overly restricted...but if you've ever had a muscle knot rubbed out of your back, then you know how much muscle tension can go unnoticed, and how much better you feel afterwards. And not only do you feel better, but you also are able to use that muscle more effectively.

    Human athletes who are in higher levels of training often have long stretching sessions, slow warmups, and perform a variety of exercises to develop *all* their muscles, not just those used on the athlete's discipline. A horse in strong training exercises heavily every day, but most of his exercise will likely affect only a few muscle groups. If he's like most horses in higher levels of training, then he probably lives in a stall much of the time. With restricted movement, his post-workout blood flow may be much slower than it was during the workout.

    In exercise, we build up "fatigue poisons" (such as lactic acid) in our muscles. These are responsible for cramping and fatigue. Massage can stimulate circulation after a workout; the stimulated circulation can more effectively flush the fatigue poisons out of the muscles. The horse may recover from the workout more quickly, and may benefit more from the exercise.

  • The horse with an injury or illness
    Galadriel has volunteered her time at the Horse Protection Association of Florida, and worked on some horses with muscle complications.
    A horse who has an injury or an illness may suffer muscle tension as one of the results. A horse who is lame, for example, carries much more weight on the uninjured legs. He will use those uninjured legs much more, and the injured legs much less, causing irregular muscle patterns across his body. If the lameness came on suddenly, the sudden shift of weight may cause muscle knots as well as tightness, since the muscles were not prepared.

    A horse who has recovered from an illness may have fatigue poisons built up in his muscles, or may even have other bodily byproducts built up in the muscle. Stimulating the circulation with massage can help flush all these byproducts out of the horse's muscles, and help him feel fresh and well.

"Michelob" is recovering from accidental poisoning (day-blooming jasmine).
"Michelob" is a resident of the Horse Protection Association of Florida.
taut and tense muscles
All the muscles in his body are taut and tense.
feeling affectionate
By the end of our session, he was feeling affectionate and a little more emotionally relaxed.
stimulated circulation
...and hopefully we did some good for him physically. Maybe some of the stimulated circulation managed to flush some toxins out of his system.
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.